Donald Trump, the man with no prior political experience and who is described by most pundits as a bigot, narcissist, and misogynist, is going to lead the world’s biggest economy. Many have been left perplexed about how this came about. Did the voters not weigh the competing policy stands of both the presidential candidates carefully? Does a majority of the people in the US really support his extremely anti-liberal policies?
If the arguments presented by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels in their book Democracy for Realists are to be believed, then it would be a mistake to think that the voters paid (or ever will pay) any attention to the candidates’ policy choices. With respect to their stands on different policies, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were like Tweedledum and Tweedledee to the voters.
Democracy for Realists is a culmination of nearly two decades of work by the authors on studying voter behaviour and its impact on elections in the USA. Written in an academic style, which makes it a tough read, this book is a must for anyone who would like to be surprised at the degree of misunderstanding of voter behaviour.
The authors take on the challenging task of stripping bare the romanticism associated with democratic theory — that of citizens steering the ship of the state. They study the gaps between the popularly conceived ideas of Democracy and the reality substantiated by compelling scientific evidence. Messrs Achen and Bartels argue that voters are agnostic to policy preferences or ideologies, and that, in fact, voters’ behaviours are shaped by social identities and partisan loyalties that people often inherit.
The authors debunk the folk-theory of democracy, which advances the notion of voters as being informed citizens who make rational choices consistent with their policy preferences during elections. They assert that the benefits of being informed are infinitesimally small to individual voters and, hence, people choose to focus on taking care of things that matter more to them (job, family, health and so on) and prefer to remain ignorant about politics. They demonstrate that, even though educational levels have improved over the last few decades and information is now more easily available than ever before, ordinary citizens are unaware of the details of even salient policy debates. What is more, even slightly informed voters do not show consistency in their own ideological positions.
The authors present evidence to show that barring a few elites, an individual voter is neither consistently liberal nor conservative in terms of identification with issues or policies. They show that it is an illusion to believe that people engage in issue-voting. People first decide whom to vote for and then adopt the stands of their chosen party (or candidate) as their own as opposed to the other way around. The authors write that, “Even the most attentive citizens are mirrors of the parties and not its masters.”
While stripping bare the realities of the folk-theory, the authors also show the inadequacy of referendum and initiative processes — measures that supposedly deepen Democracy in a society and give ultimate sovereignty to people. The authors note that ordinary citizens’ efforts to directly shape policy mostly go “badly astray”. They give various examples in the USA, most notable among them being that of citizens of Oakland voting in 1978 in favour of reducing budgets and staffing of firefighting companies, only to suffer huge fire-related losses in 1991. Direct democracy, they argue, is often very costly and the benefits (if any) don’t measure up to these high costs. Indeed, with Brexit and the rejection of the FARC peace deal in Colombia, there has been a deluge of commentary recently on how these plebiscites actually subvert democracy.
However, the most interesting aspect of the book is not the authors’ dismissal of the populist theory of democracy, but their critique of the so-called theory of retrospective voting, which ascribes to citizens the important role of appraising governments’ past performance and actions. According to this theory, while the voters might not be politically aware and might not know their own policy preferences for the future, they are able to reward or punish incumbent governments based on their performance.
Messrs Achen and Bartels present an impressive array of evidence, spanning four chapters, to quash this theory. While examining the consistency in electoral responses to economic performance of the incumbents, it is found that voters have an extremely myopic outlook. An incumbent’s performance only in the election year is rewarded or punished regardless of how the policies fare throughout the term. They give examples of Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Ronald Reagan in 1984, both of whose performance is judged only on the basis of the election year. The authors also show that voters routinely engage in blindretrospection, and reward and punish incumbents randomly for reasons completely unrelated to their competencies. They give the example of Woodrow Wilson being voted out apparently due to a series of shark attacks on the Jersey Shore in 1916, an issue over which he had no control.
It is interesting to note that the authors’ findings of voters having inconsistent choices/ideologies and doing myopic assessments of incumbents’ performances are corroborated by a growing body of work in behavioural economics. Indeed, Nobel prize laureate Daniel Kahneman has written extensively about the peak-end rule and the human tendency for duration-neglect.
It is not as if this scepticism of idealized citizens is new. Indeed, as the authors themselves point out, political scientists and philosophers since the framing of the American Constitution have questioned the capacity of the voters and the important role attributed to them during elections. Scholars such as Robert Dahl, Joseph Schumpeter, Walter Lippmann, etc. have all critically assessed the ideals and reality of democracy.
However, what is new in this treatise is that they have rejected not just the popular notions of Democracy but also previous scholarly conceptions. As they put it, “If conventional democratic ideals amount to fairy tales, then we are left with no assurance that all the scholarly definitions and all the popular endorsements are of any use in making government contribute to human welfare.”
All this criticism of democratic theory by the authors is not to say that they are propagating dictatorship over democracy. In fact, they deny this position explicitly and say that they are in agreement with Winston Churchill who said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”. While the authors do not offer any suggestions on how to improve democracy they implore us to objectively understand elections in terms of social identities, group ties, and ethnic solidarities that run across generations.
After the outcome of the current US presidential election, it seems as if the authors predicted Trump’s rise when they said, “every presidential primary season exposes the dangers of voter fatigue with familiar, experienced politicians and their enthusiasm for hopelessly unqualified but clever demagogues known only from a few television appearances”. If nothing better, Trump’s victory has at least provided all the motivations for thinking of Democracy in an alternate manner, one in which citizens’ voting is influenced by social identities.
We painfully witnessed this phenomenon being played out in the run up to the presidential vote in the US this year. It was the outsider Donald Trump, who dropped “political correctness” from the word go, and appealed directly to the identity of his core constituency. Throughout his campaign, he was vague about policy details but was high on rhetoric which he understood would resonate with the so-called disgruntled, blue-collared, white male voters. Many commentators have lamented this debasing of the political campaign, but many also agree that all Trump did was to drop the pretences.
Indeed, analysing the outcome of these US elections, Pratap Bhanu Mehta says, “The fantasy of a post-racial politics, of a politics not premised on ethnicity, was just that: A fantasy.”
Perhaps, Trump knew this all along.